Glossary of Terms – Hindu Mythology

Glossary of Terms – Hindu Mythology

CategoryTermTranslationDescription
MythologyAdi ShaktiFirst MotherAdi Shakti is First Mother, the dynamic force of Brahman and source of all power and consciousness. Adi Shakti is Mother of all that is divine and mortal. See also; Shakti.
MythologyAdiyogiLord of YogaShiva as Adiyogi is the first yogi or guru who "teaches in silence the oneness of one's innermost self (Atman) with the ultimate reality (Brahman).” Stella Kramrisch, “Manifestations of Shiva”. See also; Yoga, Brahman and Atman.
MythologyAlvarsTamil Vaishnava poet saintsAlvars were Tamil saint-poets who, between the 6th and 9th centuries, wandered south India expressing deep personal devotion (Bhakti) to Vishnu through poems and songs of longing and ecstasy. The Bhakti Movement quickly spread throughout the rest of India as worshippers rejected formal ritual, caste and theosophy to express their devotion in sensual mysticism. Some of Bhakti’s most active proponents were women, such as the saint Mirabai and the poetess, Andal. Their Saivite counterparts are known as Nayanars. See also; Bhakti, Nayanars and Bhakti.
MythologyAnandatandavaDance of BlissAs Nataraja, Shiva performs Anandatava (tr; bliss dance) dancing a weary world into extinction in preparation for Brahma the Creator to fulfill his role. This is all part of the Hindu cyclical nature of the cosmos and everything in it.
MythologyAnanthasnakeAnantha is a serpent floating upon the ocean of the changing world forming a bed for Vishnu. Five, seven, but more commonly a thousand-headed serpent, often with each head ornately crowned. Anantha is also known as Sesha - endless - as he is believed to remain in existence even after the end of the Kalpa when Nataraja destroys the world.
MythologyApasmaradwarf of ignoranceApasmara (also known as Mushalagan) is a dwarf-demon manifesting spiritual ignorance. Shiva as Nataraja manifests spiritual knowledge and the two are locked in a neverending struggle. Nataraja will forever suppress Apasarma for if the dwarf (ignorance) is slain, knowledge becomes devalued. In iconography, Apasmara is portrayed offering the anjalimudra of adoration as he is trampled by Nataraja’s right foot.
MythologyApparsaintOne of the 63 Nayanars, or Saivite saints, who wandered south India in the 7th to the 9th centuries singing hymns dedicated to Shiva and Uma. From that time forward the sensual metaphors of their hymns influenced how the divine couple are portrayed in bronze. See also; Alvars, Sambandar and Sundarar.
MythologyArjunamortal princeArjuna is the mortal charioteer who receives Krishna’s divine guidance in the epic, Bhagavad Gita.
MythologyAsurasVedic demonsVedic gods responsible for moral principles. Mitra (contracts), Aryaman (guardian of guest, friendship and marriage), Bhaga (sharing) or Varuna, the supreme Asura (or Aditya). In later Vedic texts the asuras became demons. See also; Devas.
MythologyAyyannarguardian deityAyyanar, or Shasta, is a guardian folk deity common to villages of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka. Some believe he is the son of Shiva and Mohini, a lesser known female avatar of Vishnu. Ayyannar is often depicted riding a horse, white elephant or tiger, upon which he patrols at night. Ayyannar is a Dravidian term meaning; respected elder.
MythologyBhikshatanaThe Supreme BeggarShiva’s in his role as Supreme Renouncer. In a rage, Shiva had severed the fifth head from Brahma’s shoulders and to atone he wandered as a beggar for a time. He is depicted nude with four arms, while cobras writhing about his hair and waist. The front right holds grass (kusaa) for the deer leaping playfully at his side, while his front right holds a skull cap (kapala) made of Brahma’s skull used as a begging bowl. His back hands hold traditional Shiva attributes, a drum (damaru) in his right, his trident (trishula) in his left. Unique in Hindu iconography he wears wooden sandals (paduka). Bhikshatana is often depicted as being followed by love-sick women, many of whom let slip their clothing in their lust for him.
MythologyBhu DeviGoddess EarthBhu Devi is the Earth Goddess and, along with Lakshmi, wife and consort to Vishnu. When Bhu Devi was abducted by the demon, Hiranyaksha, Vishnu took on the form of Varaha, his boar avatar, and dove into the cosmic ocean to save her. After lifting her on his tusks, Varaha vanquished the demon with his disc-weapon (chakra). See also; Lakshmi, Vishnu and Varaha.
MythologyBrahmaThe CreatorBrahma, as Creator of all living beings, emerged as the first differentiated consciousness from Brahman, The Ultimate Reality. In this role it is his consort Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge who brought order to Brahma’s formless creation. Although Brahma is equal in status with Shiva, Vishnu or Shakti, he isn’t worshipped with their devotional ardour. It is believed Brahma’s work is done and it is Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti with the power to change our world now. See also; Saraswati, Shiva and Vishnu.
MythologyChamundawrathful goddessOne of the Hindu goddesses representing a destructive aspect of Devi, The Great Goddess
MythologyDakshinamurtiLord GuruDakshinamurti is Shiva’s manifestation as teacher of yoga, music and the wisdom found in the sacred texts. Especially popular in south India.
MythologyDevasDevas are ancient Vedic gods controlling the forces of nature, such as fire, air, wind, trees, water, etc. For example, Indra (weather), Agni (fire), Apa (water), Vayu (winds), and Naksatra (stars). See also; Asuras.
MythologyDevisahitadivine groupingA sculptural group when God and Goddess are together.
MythologyGajasurasamharaShiva as Slayer of Elephant DemonShiva’s aspect as slayer of the elephant demon, Gajasura. There are several Puranic myths about Gajasura’s origins but they all agree that a demon transformed into an elephant, Shiva as Gajasurasamhara, many armed and filled with rage, appears and slays the demon, flays the skin and wears it as he performs his victory dance. Uma and Murugan are commonly portrayed looking on.
MythologyGanasupernatural beingIn northern Indian mythology Gana is a member of Shiva’s ghost entourage.
MythologyGaneshaRemover of ObstaclesGanesha, or Pillai as he was/is known in south India, is the son of Shiva and Uma though his origins may be much older than the Puranic myths indicate. Ganesha is well-loved by Hindus as he quietly listens with his elephant ears to every prayer before passing it on to other dieites and their respective spheres of influence. He was blessed by his father giving him all the knowledge and power to remove all obstacles (material and spiritual), fear or self-doubt from our minds, and worshipped before beginning of any important task. Ganesha is also known as Ganapati and Vinayaka. See also; Shiva, Uma, and Murugan.
MythologyGangaThe River Ganges personifiedThe divine personification of the Ganges River. Bathing in the Ganges washes away sin and facilitates Moksha. Incarnation of Mother Goddess. Sister of Uma. See also; Mari Amma.
MythologyGarudaman-eagleGaruḍa is depicted as the mortal enemy of snakes and thus symbolizes courage. Snakes represent factors such as ignorance obstructing the spiritual path. See also; Unnati and Naga.
MythologyGayatriembodiment of the Gayatri MantraThe Gayatri Mantra, dedicated to Savitri, god of the five elements, is the most widely known and possibly the most ancient of Hinduism’s sacred chants. It is so important the mantra embodies as the goddess, Gayatri. This YouTube video by Deva Premal is our favourite interpretation; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw
MythologyGopiyoung cowherding womenTypically girls and young women tasked with herding cows.
MythologyHamsawhite swan or gooseThe swan vahana of Saraswati, Goddess of Knowledge and Music.
MythologyHanumanRama’s devoted friendHanuman, the monkey-general, is the Hindu ideal of loyalty and service. He demonstrates these qualities in the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, when he works unfailingly to help Rama defeat his demon enemy, Ravana, and rescue Sita from the clutches of the demon king.
MythologyHayagrivaavatar of VishnuFrom Wikipedia In Hinduism, Lord Hayagriva is an avatar of Lord Vishnu.[2] He is worshipped as the god of knowledge and wisdom, with a human body and a horse's head, brilliant white in color, with white garments and seated on a white lotus. Symbolically, the story represents the triumph of pure knowledge, guided by the hand of God, over the demonic forces of passion and darkness.
MythologyIndraKing of HeavenThe foremost diety of early Vedic belief, Indra was the god of the monsoon, in the form of rain and wind, and war. All concerns very important to the early Hindu society. His weapons is the vajra, or thunderbolt. His vahana, or mount, is the cow Kamadhenu.
MythologyKalifearsome goddessKali is both a maternal figure and a fearsome destroyer. According to some Hindu stories, She was born of the wrath of Durga and Uma, embodying the most frightening aspects of destruction. To many of her devotees, Kali is a beloved mother goddess who initiates the natural process of death and renewal.
MythologyKaliyasnake demonThe Bhagavata Purana (Chapter 16, Canto 10) tells a story of Krishna subduing Kaliya a giant poisonous naga, or snake, who had been bothering the gopis, or cowherds, along the banks of the Yamuna River. See Krishna Kaliya for more detail.
MythologyKalkiHorse RiderVishnu’s 10th incarnation, Kalki is expected to arrive at the end of Kaliyuga, the twilight of this age of strife, "when all kings will be thieves." He will be riding a white horse and brandishing a flaming sword, to root out all the evil of the present dark age. Kalki heralds a new golden age will begin when only pure souls exist.
MythologyKamaGod of Love and DesireKama is the god of love and desire, represented as a young, handsome green-skinned man carrying a bow and quiver of arrows. His bow is a stalk of sugarcane with a string of honeybees, and his arrows are decorated with five kinds of fragrant flowers; ashoka, white and blue lotus, jasmine and Mango tree. Kamadeva’s vahanas and attributes are a cuckoo, a parrot, humming bees, the season of spring, and gentle breezes. All symbols of spring, when his festival is celebrated as Holi, Holika or Vasanta.
MythologyKirttimukhaglorious faceA swallowing fierce monster face with huge fangs, and gaping mouth, quite common in the iconography of south India. As a decorative element on the lintel of temple doorways or gates they symbolize the reabsorption of entering a temple. Not to be confused with Simhamukha, or Lion Face, which leads the worshipper to Brahman.
MythologyKrishnaThe Philosopher KingVishnu’s 8th and most popular incarnation; Vishnu descended to be born as Krishna, a cowherd who later killed several demons. As a youth, Krishna loved to play the flute and seduce the village girls, but as he grew older he had one particular favourite, Radha. Their relationship has come to symbolise the ideal bond of love between the gods and humans known as bhakti. Later he helped the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war against their evil cousins. On the battlefield he revealed divine knowledge in the form of the Bhagavad Gita to his friend, Arjuna. Krishna is well loved by all Hindus as the conduit between gods and mortals. See also; VIshnu, Radha,
MythologyKurmatortoiseVishnu’s 2nd incarnation assumed the form of a tortoise who held the Mandhara mountain from beneath as the gods and demons used it to churn the oceans for the sake of amrit, the elixir of life.
MythologyLaksanadistinguishing markA quality, characteristic or identifying mark. An example would be the triangular birthmark upon Vishnu’s chest.
MythologyLakshmiGoddess of Wealth and HappinessAlso known as Sri or Sri Devi, Lakshmi embodies Shaktic energy as the Goddess of Wealth and Happiness. Lakshmi is a Mahadevi, a Great Goddess. Hindus ask blessings of Lakshmi for the health of their families and success in their business ventures. She, along with Bhu Devi, The Earth Goddess, is consort to Vishnu and his creative force. See also; Vishnu and Bhu Devi.
MythologyMaheshwarthird eyeShiva’s third eye is a powerful source of fiery energy. For examplte, Kama, the god of human love, is sent by the gods to gently wake Shiva from one of his long mediations. Shiv is startled when struck by one of Kama’s love-arrows and while his two eyes remain closed, his third eye hits Kama with its fiery energy, instantly incineratiing Kama. Kama’s grieving wife begs Shiva to restore Kama back to life, but rather restore Kama to corporeal form, disperses Kama’s love throughout the universe.
MythologyMakarasupernatural beingA mythological crocodile-like creature, auspicious symbol of abundance, life-giving waters and the primal energy of life. Commonly featured as the source of fire on the Nataraja prabhamandala. The vahana of Ganga.
MythologyMari AmmaMotherA south Indian folk manifestation of Shakti as Mother, Mari Amma, or Durga as she is known outside of south India, is the warrior aspect of the Great Goddess Devi. She is slayer of demons, protector of the village, and curer of diseases. See also; Shakti, Devi, Uma and Kali.
MythologyMatsyaFishVishnu’s 1st incarnation assumed the form of a fish to recover the The Vedas from a demon and return them to Brahma for their completion. Matsya also rescued Manu (the primal man) from a flood that inundated the whole earth by carrying his boat to the top of a mountain.
MythologyMayurapeacock vahana of MuruganMayura is the peacock vahana of Murugan, representing pride, arrogance and notions of superiority, all of which which need to be controlled to maintain the spiritual path of darshan. See also; Murugan and Darshan. .
MythologyMundalamalanecklace of skullsThe transient nature of all phenomenon in the material world, the false personalities we assume for creating identity and the myriad forms that egoism (ahaṅkāra) takes.
MythologyMushikaratGanesha, like the rat, penetrates even the most secret places.
MythologyNagasnakeSymbolises all those factors such as ignorance that obstruct the spiritual path. Mortal enemy of Garuda, whose weapon against ignorance is Vedic knowledge.
MythologyNandibullShiva's vahana, or transport, is Nandi, a white bull and symbol of happiness and strength. Nandi is the source of the term; 'sacred cow’. Saivite temples typically have a sculpture of Nandi in the courtyard facing the sanctum containing the Shivalingam and represents Nandi’s eternal devotion to his master.
MythologyNarasimhaMan-LionVishnu’s fourth incarnation and a man-lion. Vishnu helped his young devotee Prahlada when he was tortured by his demon father, Hiranyakasipu for intense devotion. Listening to the calls of his young devotee, Vishnu sprang out of the pillar of a building as Narasimha and slew the demon.
MythologyNavagrahanine planetsEach planet has it’s own diety with appropriate qualities, attributes and characteristics. The Cholas were very accomplished astronomers and kept close watch on the heavens. Naturally they were looking at the night sky hrough the lens of Hinduism.
MythologyNayanarsTamil Saivite saintsThe Nayanars were sixty-three Saivite poet-saints of south India who lived between the 6th and 9th centuries CE. They are best known for expressing deep personal devotion (bhakti) to Shiva through poems and songs of longing and ecstasy. Their ten, perhaps twelve, Vaishnava counterparts are known as Alvars. The Bhakti Movement quickly spread throughout India, and in the 14th to 17th centuries, a bhakti resurgence swept through central and northern India as worshippers rejected ritual, caste and philosophy to express their devotion for their chosen deity in erotic mysticism. See also; Alvars and Bhakti.
MythologyParasuramaaxe warriorVishnu’s 6th incarnation. A forest dwelling hermit armed with an axe, connotes completion of the basic development of humankind. In another story Parasurama, again with his axe, saves Brahmins from the tyranny of arrogant Khastriyas (warrior caste) who grew wicked and tyrannical, neglecting the upholding of the Dharma and protecting the people.
MythologyPashupatiLord of AnimalsShiva as Lord of Animals dates from about 3500 BC.
MythologyPithaPoint of divine femail energy.Geographic points where divine female energy (or Shakti) is particularly concentrated. See also; Shakti
MythologyPranabreathThe life giving element for all living things in the material world. The spiritual essence within the bodies of the gods and goddesses. In iconography the smooth rounded aspect of their bodies is an example of their prana. See also; Caitanya.
MythologyRamaVishnu’s 7th incarnation and central figure in the historical epic, Ramayana, an allegorical tale of Dharma and dharmic living though model characters; Rama, Sita and Hanuman.
MythologyRatrito giveThe giver” of bliss, of peace, of happiness.
MythologyRikRitual RhythmsThe rhythms of the sacrificial ritual performed by Vishnu. See also; Sama and Yajus.
MythologySalabhanjikabreaking a branch of sala treeOriginally an ancient tribal belief that young women had the ability to bring a tree to flower by touch or song. The term now applies to a sculptural temple figure of a young woman under a stylized tree in various poses, such as dancing, grooming herself or playing a musical instrument. Her female physical characteristics, such as breasts and hips, are often exaggerated. Images of salabhanjika are positioned in both Hindu and Buddhist temples at points of transition from the secular to the sacred space. As auspicious guardians they bless the worshipper’s journey to the central shrine of the temple. See also; Dohada and Yakshi.
MythologySamaritual soundsThe sounds of the sacrificial ritual performed by Vishnu. See also; Rik and Yajus
IconographySambandarsaintSambandar is one of the 63 Alvars, Saivite saints who wandered south India in the 7th to the 9th centuries singing hymns dedicated to Shiva and Uma. From that time forward the imagery invoked by their hymns and poems influenced how The Divine Couple have been depicted in Chola Bronzes. See also; Alvars, Appar and Sundarar.
MythologySaraswatiGoddess of Knowledge and MusicSaraswati is Goddess of Knowledge and Music and embodies those qualities in her role as embodiment of Shaktic energy. Her Vedic origins are the banks of the extinct Saraswati River in the Thar Desert where she is believed to be the keeper of the river of knowledge that flows from her consort, Brahma. Saraswati personifies civilized behavior, refined tastes and artistic talent. She is wife to Brahma and as such created the knowledge and wisdom which brought order to Brahma’s formless creation. See also; Brahma.
MythologySarpasnakesSymbolises the sexual energy latent within the lowest chakra (muladhara) at the base of the spine. Also the control of anger, the worst of all negative emotions.
MythologySeshanagserpentA massive coiled serpent symbolizing the sleeping universe.
MythologyShrikanthaLord of the Auspicious NeckShiva’s role as savior of the world when he consumed the lethal Halahala poison released when the oceans were churned by the serpent Vasuki. Shiva drankd the poison and held it in his throat thereby allowing the nectar of immortality to rise and save the world.
MythologySimhalionSymbolizes glory.
MythologySimhamukhalion faceLike the kirttimukha the Simhamukha is often carved into the lintel of temple doorways and gates but while kirttimukha is a swallower, simhamukha leads worshippers to Brahman, The Immensity. Simhamukha is also associated with solar and lunar eclipses. The prabhamandala on icons such as Shiva as Nataraja may include a simhamukha. See also; kirttimukha.
MythologySimhavyalalion-headedAs powerful predators lions instill fear and therefore used to symbolise fierce power. Most commonly seen as Narasimha and Yalis. See also; Narasimha and Yali.
MythologySomaskandaThe Holy FamilySomaskanda is a Tamil concept of the Holy Family found in south India. Originating with the pre-Chola Pallava culture it depicts Shiva, Uma and a young Murugan (Skanda). Occassionally they are joined by his elder brother, Ganesha.
MythologySrivatsaendless knotSymbolizes the way things are; endless and complex. Without beginning and end.
MythologySukaparrotSymbolizes teaching The Truth. A parrot repeats exactly what it hears without clarifying, modifying or distorting.
MythologySundararsaintOne of the 63 Alvars, or Saivite saints, who wandered south India in the 7th to the 9th centuries singing hymns dedicated to Shiva and Uma. From that time forward the imagery from their hymns influenced how the Great God and Goddess are depicted in the arts, particularly icons. See also; Alvars, Appar and Sambandar.
MythologySurasundaricelestial beautyA temple sculpture depicting a young woman embodying feminine beauty and sensual grace. They normally embody thirteen specific types, such as tree goddess (Salabhanjika), and celestial dancer, (Apsara). As temple figures their spiritual function is to represent a creative aspect of Shakti, The Divine Feminine. See also; Prakriti and Shakti.
MythologyUmaDaughter of the MountainUma, or Parvati as she is known outside of south India, is a principal manifestation of Shaktic creative energy. She represents the divine feminine, embodying beauty, grace and wisdom. In pre-Aryan Vedic times she was venerated as ascetic Himalayan goddess but over time she was absorbed into the Vedic pantheon as the primary manifestation of Shaktic spiritual power in her new role as Shiva’s consort. She is the interdependent feminine prakriti principle to Shiva’s male purusha principle. Uma was born to lure Shiva from the life of the ascetic into the more active realm of husband and father. She represents the ideal wife and mother, a perfect balance of purity and sensuality. See also; Shakti and Shiva.
MythologyUnnatiQueen of KnowledgeUnnati is Garuda’s wife and helpmate in the battles against the evils of ignorance.
MythologyVamanaDwarfVishnu’s 5th incarnation took birth as a dwarf to slay the demon Bali and restore the heavenly kingdom of Indra back to him (note; Vamana is Vishnu’s first human form). With one step he covered the whole earth. With another he covered all of heaven and with his third he pushed Bali's head deep into the nether world.
MythologyVarahaMan-BoarVishnu’s 3rd incarnation assumed the form of a boar and slew the demon Hiranyaksha when he carried away Bhu Devi, Mother Earth, to the nether worlds. See also; Bhu Devi.
MythologyVibhutiashesAshes are the diverted power of procreation. Kama was destroyed and turned into ashes by the ray from the third-eye of Shiva. Symbolizes the Ultimate Metaphysical transience of everything not divine.
MythologyVidyadharassupernatural beingAngels
MythologyVishnuThe PreserverKnown to the Cholas as Mayon, the Dark One, Vishnu is preserver and protector of dharmic stability and order. It is said that whenever there is imbalance between good and evil on earth, Vishnu as the preserver will reestablish the balance. One of the ways he does this is to incarnate himself here on earth, something which lessens his power not at all. He has incarnated (with Lakshmi by his side) nine times with the tenth to come. See also; Lakshmi, Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parasurma, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki.
MythologyVrishabhavanaShiva as Rider of The BullShiva as a common farmer (albeit a farmer wearing princely jewellery) resting his elbow on a (missing) Nandi. Usually accompanied by Uma. According to tradition, the ultimate boon sought by a Shiva devotee is that he be set free from the shackles of life and allowed to remain forever in the presence of Shiva. While granting this boon Shiva assumes the form of Vrishabhavana.
MythologyYajusritual methodologyThe methodology of the sacrificial ritual performed by Vishnu. See also; Rik and Sama.
MythologyYakshaancient forest spiritYaksha, mythical nature spirits of early indigenous origin. Generally benevolent and known for their beauty and charm, yakshas could be mischievous, capricious, sexually rapacious, sometimes murderous subterranean guardians of treasures hidden in the earth. They are also powerful magicians and shape-shifters, and often worshipped as guardians of villages, and water sources such as springs and wells. Their worship, together with popular belief in serpent deities, or nagas, feminine fertility deities, and mother goddesses (female yakshas are known as yakshis), predates the The Vedas, although yaksha worship coexisted with priestly Vedic practice. They were also prototypes for the attendants of gods and kings in later Hindu and Buddhist mythology and art. See also; Salabhanjika.
MythologyYalitemple ornamentA yali is a grotesque temple ornament similar in purpose and meaning as a gargoyle in that it serves as a demonic symbol of the ugly and imperfect; a counterpoint to the beauty and perfection of the divinities inside the temple. There are no specific references to yalis in mythology, rather they represent the darker side of human nature against which the devotee must struggle. They usually serve as a cornice bracket with their back to the temple as its protectors. The body of a yali is usually a lion or tiger but is often portrayed with the torso or head of an elephant or bird. We have a Yali sculpture on offer but it is not shown in Our Gallery.
MythologyYogeshwaraLord of YogaThose who believe Krishna alone is Supreme Being believe it was Krishna, not Shiva, who created yogic philosophy and techniques and therefore referred to as Yogeshwara. The practice of Yoga is central to experiencing the divine through deep meditation, therefore its importance requires that Krishna be credited with its creation.